Virginia Revamps Its Social Studies And History Standards

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 11, 2001 4 min read
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“New and improved” is generally a fitting characterization of Virginia’s revised history and social studies standards, according to experts and Virginia educators who have reviewed them.

For More Information

Read Virginia’s new history and social science standards, from the Virginia Department of Education. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

The “History and Social Science Standards of Learning,” adopted by the state board of education late last month and expected to go into effect by the beginning of the next school year, have been modified in response to concerns that arose as schools implemented the standards in those subjects that the state adopted in 1995.

“We’re one of the few states that has truly tried to introduce history into our state accountability program,” said Kirk T. Schroder, the president of the Virginia board of education. “That area is full of controversial issues.”

He added that the new 41-page document that specifies what Virginia students should learn about history and social studies responds to “sequencing and other pedagogical issues” raised by educators.

E.D. Hirsch Jr.

E.D. Hirsch Jr., a professor of education and humanities at the University of Virginia and the author of the influential 1987 best seller Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, said he considered the new standards “a big improvement over the prior ones.”

While he was not formally involved in writing either version of the Virginia standards, Mr. Hirsch said he had critiqued the 1995 history and social studies standards at the request of the state school board and found them wanting for two reasons.

First, he said, they had contained what he felt was an “indoctrination flavor” in presenting some standards about economics, such as implying that the free market was “wonderful.” Second, he said, they had crammed too much world history into a short period in students’ school careers, rather than spreading it out over more grades.

The new standards appear to have omitted references to the economy that are “ideological,” according to Mr. Hirsch, and also seem to have taken a more gradual approach to teaching world history.

Christopher T. Cross, the president of the Washington-based Council for Basic Education, a nonprofit organization that reviews and assesses states’ standards, said the 1995 standards reflected a “log-rolling mentality of creating standards,” which resulted in their covering too much material. He said the revised standards were more focused.

“In the revision, they’ve moved some material from grade to grade. I think they include well-thought-through and constructive changes that reflect the thought that you have to be cognizant of the amount of time children have to learn,” Mr. Cross said.

But Debbie Lou Hague, a geography and government teacher at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach, Va., and the president of the Virginia Council for the Social Studies, said she thought the revised standards didn’t go far enough in omitting some of the “insignificant details” of the earlier standards.

“Is it really necessary for a 3rd grader to know the importance of the Charter of Virginia?” she asked.

More Flexibility

Other educators said the revised standards were less prescriptive than the earlier ones about when to teach various standards, allowing schools to cover some standards in any one of several grades.

The standards are also clearer and better organized than they were in the past, said Sara R. Shoob, the K-12 social studies coordinator for the 160,000-student Fairfax County school district, who served on a committee to revise the K-3 portion of the history and social studies standards.

“The skills the kids need to know are put first, which gives greater emphasis on things such as critical-thinking skills,” Ms. Shoob said. “We’re hoping that with a greater emphasis on those skills, we’ll create better test questions that ask kids to think creatively rather than produce facts.”

In addition, she said, the revised standards are “much more developmentally appropriate” than the earlier ones. For example, she said, the earlier standards required 2nd graders to compare the ways that money can increase in value in savings and investments. “That wasn’t appropriate for a 2nd grader,” she said, adding the standard had been cut in the revision.

Ms. Shoob said the standards had some gaps, however, in addressing the impact of various cultures on American history. She said she hoped that those gaps might be made up in the teachers’ resource guide for the standards, which is being written now and is expected to be published by fall.

“There’s no mention of the impact of Hispanic-Americans on our culture,” she said. “That’s a huge minority group. Granted, they didn’t have a huge impact on the history of Virginia. They have had a huge impact on the history of the United States.”

Mr. Schroder, the president of the state board, noted that a dispute between Americans of Armenian and Turkish descent over what to include about the history of the Ottoman Empire in the standards had dominated board discussions and had not yet been resolved.

“The Armenians strongly urged the formal recognition of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Empire,” he said. “The Turks disagreed with that.”

The board decided that the revised standards would require students to learn about the development of the Ottoman Empire, but the issue of whether they would be required to learn about a massacre at its hand would be taken up again in the writing of the teachers’ resource guide.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as Virginia Revamps Its Social Studies And History Standards


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